BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech basketball boasts a lavish practice complex, committed administration and a five-year stretch in which the Hokies hovered near the top of the ACC. But when measured by the sport's most precious commodity, Tech ranks last among its conference colleagues.
And it's not even close.
The Hokies have reached two NCAA tournaments in the last 25 years. Every other ACC school has made at least six. Most are in double-figures.
Those stark numbers underscore the challenge new Tech athletic director Whit Babcock faces after dismissing coach James Johnson on Monday.
"I'm looking for somebody that's a grinder and a scrapper," Babcock said during a Tuesday news conference, "and is not afraid to compete and get in here and go head-to-head with at least four Hall of Fame coaches in this league. …
"I like hiring guys who have had to hustle somewhere."
A former assistant at Ferrum, Longwood and Elon, Johnson fit the bill. But he lacked the previous head-coaching experience this job demands and that should be non-negotiable during Babcock's search.
Bill Foster and Seth Greenberg, both of whom coached the Hokies to NCAA tournament victories, were grinders, too. Foster's first head-coaching gig was at NAIA Shorter, while Greenberg had been an assistant at Columbia and big whistle at Long Beach State.
Babcock on Tuesday was poised, confident and, perhaps most important, adept at managing expectations.
He assured fans that he has a list, ranked by preference, and that he'll aim high for the "splash" hire. But he quickly detailed all the hurdles: buyout clauses; agents meddling; marketplace competition; coaches trolling for leverage with their current employers.
Don't be alarmed, Babcock cautioned, if the search is "a roller-coaster ride" or you have to Google the new coach's name.
"There's lots of moving parts and motives along the way," he said.
Indeed, but in firing Johnson Babcock had best be darn sure he can navigate that maze.
He certainly has the connections to guide him. He's worked in the Big East, Big 12 and Southeastern Conference, where he was no stranger to quality basketball coaches. His mentors include Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, a member of the NCAA tournament selection committee, and Duke AD Kevin White, whose son Mike has won 72 games in three seasons as Louisiana Tech's head coach.
Much will hinge on money. Johnson was making approximately $700,000 annually, a package Tech may need to double for his successor. Moreover, the school owes Johnson more than $800,000 over the next three years and Greenberg, fired in 2012, approximately $600,000 over the next two.
"We're not going to just throw money down the drain," Babcock said, "but I just believe there are certain sports (where) you really have to invest."
Men's basketball is one, and Babcock's acclaimed fundraising acumen is about to be tested.
Given Tech's modest basketball heritage, and given the ACC's strength — Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina's Roy Williams, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and, starting next season, Louisville's Rick Pitino are the Hall of Fame coaches Babcock referenced — what are reasonable goals for the Hokies?
Babcock said he will eventually expect consistent top-half ACC finishes and NCAA tournament bids, a combination Greenberg attained only once in nine seasons. But from 2007-11, Greenberg did coach Tech to 50 ACC victories, as many or more than any program during that time except Duke and North Carolina.
Since, the Hokies are 11-45 in conference. So the job is undeniably difficult, but not impossible.
The marquee hire for which fans pine and Babcock should aim? Good luck.
I can't imagine Texas' Rick Barnes returning to his rural ACC roots — he's from Hickory, N.C., and coached Clemson. I doubt Marquette's Buzz Williams, Cincinnati's Mick Cronin, VCU's Shaka Smart, Harvard's Tommy Amaker or Roanoke native Gregg Marshall of undefeated Wichita State would consider Tech.
The Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke reported recently that former UCLA coach Ben Howland wants back in the business, but other than four years at Pitt, he's a West Coast lifer. As a player, Danny Manning led Kansas to a national title, but are two seasons as Tulsa's head coach enough?
No, history says Tech will land a successful head coach who's not an ESPN darling. Winthrop's Pat Kelsey, Ole Miss' Andy Kennedy, Wofford's Mike Young, George Washington's Mike Lonergan, Xavier's Chris Mack, Dayton's Archie Miller, Southern Mississipppi's Donnie Tyndall and Louisiana Tech's White spring to mind.
None of those names, it must be stressed, come from Babcock or anyone at Tech. They're the musings of your friendly keyboard jockey and some of his coaching contacts.
Babcock seems determined to keep his own counsel and cautioned against putting any stock in the inevitable speculation that envelopes coaching searches.
"After turning over coaches here pretty regularly," Babcock said, "we'd better get it right, because I'm going to give them some time to get it right."
NCAA tournament appearances in the last 25 years by ACC programs
North Carolina: 22
Wake Forest: 14
Georgia Tech: 10
Notre Dame: 10
Boston College: 10
N.C. State: 9
Virginia Tech: 2
Note: Louisville replaces Maryland in the conference next season.